My wife and I just returned from a four-day trip to the North Shore that got me back to Grand Marais for the first time in six years (and my wife’s first ever) and got us both (for the first time) to Cascade River State Park near Lutsen.
I am breaking my trip report into two parts considering two nights were spend in BP01 (backpack 1) camp site at Cascade River State Park and the other two were spent in Grand Marais. And they were completely different experiences. For lack of a better spot, I am posting in the GM forum because that was the centerpiece of the trip.
The purpose of the getaway was fall colors and an escape from two young kids, which we love but need a break from from time to time. And to introduce my wife to one of my favorite towns.
Unfortunately, fall colors were a few weeks out because of a lack of rain. We knew we’d be early for peak anyway, but thought we’d at least hit some color. Oh well. Next time.
Wednesday, Sept. 11: We left Minneapolis just after the morning traffic rush with a car packed tight with a ton of gear for camping and a fresh bag (clothes that didn’t smell like a camp fire) for hotel life on the second half of the trip. The weather report of 28 degrees overnight Thursday meant we needed to add some gear to the stuff I had already set out.
With it being Wednesday, it was a quick drive up to Duluth even though there was a four-mile stretch of construction south of Duluth (about Midway Road) that got us to one lane. We cruised through and felt bad for anyone coming through at peak time.
We had time so I decided to take the scenic route rather than the expressway. We couldn’t check in to our camp site until at least 1 anyway. So I thought the best sightseeing could be done from the car and stopping at a few spots along the way – overlooks mainly.
For any newbies, I usually disagree with most posters on here and suggest taking the expressway because newbies are usually heading to the north shore for the first time and I think the best part of the drive is well north of Two Harbors anyway, so it’s best to get up there and have more time in the peak sightseeing area. And you can access New Scenic Café from the expressway too!
After a stop in “downtown Lutsen” at the liquor store, we zipped up the last 8 miles to Cascade River State Park. I had never visited. I’d only seen photos, which we learned do not do the place justice.
I had read some pretty average ratings of the main campground where you car camp. After a quick drive through I was glad we avoided it. We saw two nice sites and a bunch of small, no-grass sites that really would have been a disappointment to get stuck in. Back in April I had booked two nights for Sept. 11-12 with the dream of camping in fall colors. I knew peak would fall a little later but I also wanted to walk the line on temperatures.
BP01 is one of three “backpack” camp sites at Cascade River. I wanted this one because the site is right on the water, while the others are not. It was definitely the most in-demand judging from the booking calendar.
The issue you have to keep in mind is that you park more than a mile and backpack to your site (hence the name) and that unlike backpack camping in the Boundary Waters, you can’t gather firewood at the camp site. You have to haul it in. Which means you are making at LEAST two trips if you do it by the book.
Well, we didn’t do it by the book. With temps forecast in the 30s and 40s overnight (28 overnight Thursday) we weren’t going to skimp on firewood. We bought six bundles, piled them in the car and drove it down to the spot where the camp site access trail crosses Highway 61.
Yes, we cheated. We dumped the firewood and our cooler and then backpacked in the rest of our gear. The park ranger we checked in with said he couldn’t tell us we could do that but that “people do it.” Hint taken. But it took a lot of effort to backpack our gear anyway, and to get the firewood the last 0.3 miles to the camp site. Not easy stuff to carry.
We were wiped when we got all our stuff to the site, so we were late in marveling what a nice site it is. A huge site (big enough for a group of 6 IMO) with soft ground and about 30 feet to the shoreline. Best of all, it had a beautiful wooden shelter to keep gear dry or huddle during lightning storms. People had carved their initials in over the years, and some had hammered beer caps into the ends of the logs. We added to the bunch Summit’s name, which was shockingly absent. That shelter housed our gear and firewood for the two days. So we could keep the tent clear. Also, it had a food locker!
After a four-hour drive and some gear-hauling we decided to crack a beer and sit on the shoreline, which is separated from the grass camp site by a thin line of trees and a few steps. So you feel secluded at the site but you still can hear the waves clear as day. Nice rock formations made for a great sitting area. We sat there for hours relaxing and enjoying Summit’s handywork. Then set up the tent and got the fire going. Fried up some dinner over the fire, had a cocktail and told some stories and dozed off listening to the waves.
Here is probably the place to tell about the negatives of the BP01 site. First, although it is right on the shoreline, which is incredible, it is also not far off Highway 61. So even though you’re a mile from the main campground and your car, you don’t have the super secluded feeling and you can hear the traffic a bit. Although the waves crashing drowns it out a bit and more than makes up for the negative. Secondly, the fire ring is the older model that doesn’t have the raised grate on the newer models. So the grate is at the same level as the top of the fire ring, which means you have to have had your fire going a while before cooking and push coals underneath that grate.
End of day 1.
Thursday, Sept. 12: Day 2 started early with a good rest and a good day of hiking the park ahead. To invigorate ourselves, we both jumped in the lake to rinse off and wake up. With lake temps at about 40 degrees, it was a little like a polar plunge. But it did the job. The shoreline at this site is all rock with no sand in sight, so it’s tricky and dangerous to climb in.
But it can be done. And we started the day with a freezing bath and warm campfire to make coffee and breakfast. From there we hoofed it to our car and drove to the parking lot where the main trail starts. We figured we will be walking enough to warrant a car ride through the unscenic gravel roads from our parking area to the trail parking area.
The headliner of the loops of hike at Cascade River State Park are, of course, the cascades – which you hit immediately. And that’s why you’ll always see cars along Highway 61 there – outside the park. You can park there and avoid the $5 entry to park in the park (but why not part with $5 for a good cause?) and hit the main event just a hundred yards upriver.
The first thing you see while entering from within the park is the bridge over the river that gives you a great (but not the best) view of the two largest of the cascades. From there you follow the signs, like any other state park. We decided to take the 3.5-mile loop to Lookout Mountain. But you start by following the river and stepping down to a series of overlooks of the cascades.
Like I said earlier, pictures don’t do the place justice. And I think the main reason is you miss out on the sounds of crashing water that add so much to the experience. Most rivers draining into Lake Superior on the north shore run down to the lower elevation and therefore drop off some ledges, but I liked this cascade experience best – with the rock formations to the gorgeous scenery up above the drops.
Leaving the river to walk toward the Lookout mountain loop, two things were becoming clear:
1. the park is trying to add in some white pines (my favorite tree), as evidence by the many seedlings (and some 6-footers) surrounded by cages to protect their tops from deer. Which must be partly in reaction to …
2. the vast number of dead birch trees. I knew nothing about it coming up, but the area is under serious birch tree loss right now. Everywhere you looked you could see mature birches either standing dead or broken off halfway up the trunk. The aspen were OK from what I saw. And I don’t know the reason, but it has to be a disease. And my only guess was bronze birch borer. It’s terribly sad considering it is the main deciduous tree up there, and from Schroeder to north of Grand Marais it was very visibly depleting the forest.
Fortunately the evergreens and aspens looked fine. We didn’t notice it being nearly as bad up near Grand Portage. And also fortunately, aspens grow fast and can replace the loss easily. I have no idea if it is birch borer or what, and if it is, how fast birch stands can recover and cycle out the disease. But maybe aspens are the quick solution. It wouldn’t be the north shore without those beautiful white-branched birch.
The walk from the river to the base of the hill up to Lookout Mountain is beautiful. Tree root steps, a nice creek crossing, and good tree cover with all the balsam firs and surviving birch. The trail markings are not entirely clear, but a little thought and consulting with the map gets you elevating, which is when you know you’re on the right path. The lookout area at the top of the “mountain” is nice. Good place for lunch, which is what we did. The last 100 yards or so was steeper than the rest so we welcomed a little rest for the legs too.
Photos taken of the beautiful scenery, we headed back down and took the other side of the loop back, then continued to the info center and then took the riverside hike loop that brought us back to our car. We jumped in, drove to Lutsen for a few missing supplies and a stop at the bar at the Highway 61 bridge over the Cascade River, then re-parked and re-hiked back to camp. By then it was cooling down, and it was time to get the fire started.
We brought the tent out from under the shelter (we palced it there to dry out from last night’s rain and to keep it out of rain while on the hike) and set it up again. Threw in the warm gear. And watched the sun go down from the shore.
Dinner of bratwurst and rice. With Summit of course. And smores. Enough fuel to fight off the cold in the tent. Not a bad end to day 2.
(see the rest in part 2, which I will post maybe tomorrow)